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30 May 2023

RETRO REVIEW: try not to snore on THE STAY AWAKE

THE STAY AWAKE (John Bernard, 1989) 

In the fifties, American serial killer William John Brown (Lindsay Reardon, DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH) is executed for multiple rapes and murders of young women. He claims to be the Angel of Darkness and will have his revenge from beyond the grave. Thirty years later at St. Mary's private girls' school somewhere in Europe after the term, a roving Steadicam POV starts wandering the corridors on the night that the remaining girls and their teacher Miss Walton (Shirley Jane Harris, THE RETURN OF THE FAMILY MAN) schedule a stay awake in the gym to raise charity funds. 

The evil presence breaks a beakers in classrooms and makes just enough noise for Miss Walton to alert groundskeeper Mr. Stark (Ken Marshall, THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY II) to the presence of a prowler, but the girls remain largely oblivious as do aerobics – the throwaway reference to Jamie Lee Curtis seeming to have more to do with her eighties fitness image than as a HALLOWEEN final girl – play lame pranks, shower, and run off to meet boys who have snuck onto the grounds. Eventually the evil presence tires of wandering around and shows itself as a Halloween store demon that starts killing the cast through telekinetic means until only one remains.

An early Avi Lerner/Nu Image credit from the South Africa tax shelter days when a few local films were also able to take advantage of free government money raked in by foreign productions like the various Cannon Films, 21st Century Film Corporation, Allied Vision, and Breton Film Productions, Ltd. productions like the back-to-back AMERICAN NINJA 2 and AMERICAN NINJA 3, RIVER OF DEATH, PLATOON LEADER, TEN LITTLE INDIANS, HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE, THE HOUSE OF USHER, BURIED ALIVE, and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (from which this film's Christobel D'Orthez is the only recognizable cast member among the students). Unlike the equally budget-deprived by ambitious and transgressive South African contemporary THE SHADOWED MIND – which was actually banned – THE STAY AWAKE is almost feeble in its plotting and execution (probably the closest modern equivalent might be the Paris Hilton Scottish-set/England-lensed horror NINE LIVES); had it been made these days on this level with state funds, one would wonder if most of the money had been laundered. 

The William John Brown scene appears to have been tacked on, not only because it is more visually-stylish than the rest of the film – intercutting the killer's walk to the gas chamber with slow-motion cutaways to his crime scenes under investigation to the tune of a fifties-style ballad – but there seems to be nothing to connect the killer to the students of a European private Catholic girls' school and the actual onscreen monster is a lame puppet demon (additional cutaways to Brown with poorly-aligned optical red eyes could just as easily have been added in post). The rest of the film is interminable banter between the catty girls, wandering around corridor sets, and endless Steadicam shots – alleviated by a couple crane shots of the exterior of the Gothic campus of which only the gymnasium seems to truly belong – to groaning synth music and demonic laughter. The in-camera effects are modest – as is the cheesecake shower sequence – the gore is minimal, and the whole thing ends with a freeze frame and a warbly pop song. As bad as THE STAY AWAKE is, I would probably still snap it up on Blu-ray if only to see how the film looks stripped of its dark and hazy video mastered defects. 

The film was released on VHS by Nelson Entertainment and on DVD by Image Entertainment (out of print and ridiculously expensive when it pops up). The most economic physical media option is importing the German DVD which has remained affordable since it has been re-pressed a number of times with different covers (the French DVD only includes the French-language dub). I would avoid the unauthorized Cheezy Flicks DVD on principle. For the curious, THE STAY AWAKE is currently streaming on Tubi via current rights owner Filmrise (although not from their own streaming service). 

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